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87. How to Make Friends With Happiness

We operate in our culture with a basic assumption, it is good to be happy. We are always trying to be happy. We may have different ways of striving for happiness - we eat to be happy, change partners to be happy, move jobs, go on holiday, watch television, drink, take drugs, meditate, go to therapy, buy things, try to make things go our way - but we all want to be happy. But do we really? This week's tip explores. It seems that if you turn on the television at any time of day or night, you can be confident of finding an episode of Friends. This is my daughters' idea of relaxation - apparently a spare half hour cannot be better spent than watching an episode of Friends for the tenth time. Inevitably I get to watch the occasional episode, or more usually, part of an episode, and so it was the other night. Phoebe is my favourite character and she was having an animated conversation with a new boyfriend. 'The trouble is that you are so positive all the time,' she complained. 'You like everybody, everything's beautiful, nothing's ever s***!' So you're saying that you want me to be less happy?' says he, astonished. 'Mu-u-u-uch less happy!' says Phoebe, emphatically. Even though we spend much of our time searching for happiness, most of us can relate to Phoebe's frustration with her relentlessly positive boyfriend. Relentless positivity induces, after a while, the kind of nausea that you get when you eat too much candy floss. So what's going on here? Do we really want to be happy, or do we just think we do? The answer is both. We do want to be happy, because being happy feels great and we like to feel great. As Freud described in his 'pleasure principle', human beings are wired to seek pleasure and move away from pain. But we also have thoughts about happiness and that's where it gets complicated. On the subject of paradigms or rules for living, which I talked about in a tip last month, here are some common ones related to happiness. I am not the sort of person who is happy I don't deserve to be happy It's bad to be happy when there is suffering in the world Conversely: It is bad to be unhappy I must be happy at all times If I'm not happy then I must be failing in life Basically it comes down to two main beliefs: It's bad to be happy It's bad to be unhappy And both are pretty tricky to live with! Who would have thought that we could have such a negative relationship with something so positive... Like most things, this all starts in childhood, with our parents or carers. Families where everything has to be positive all the time will tend to produce children who grow up thinking that everything must be positive all the time, including them. Phoebe's boyfriend almost certainly grew up in one of these kinds of homes. These people will tend to draw a veil over unwelcome emotions and events, push them away and pretend they are not there. Sometimes it is not so much that the family is positive all the time, but that a particular child decides that it is his or her job to be the happy person in it. The story of a person who has given themselves this job may run something like this: 'I try to be cheerful all the time, even if I don't feel like it. I beat myself up every time I feel bad, because I know I shouldn't feel bad. This makes me feel worse, but because I'm so sure that I should be happy all the time, I can't stop beating myself up and making myself feel worse. I firmly believe that if I did stop beating myself up for feeling bad, I would feel bad all the time.' Families and/or communities where there is a lot of unhappiness and strife, on the other hand, and where children need permission to be happy, will tend to produce children who grow up thinking they are not the sort of person who is happy - happiness is for other people. They may be averse to feeling happy because in childhood happiness, and the natural exuberance that goes with it in children, became associated with disappointment, or punishment, or guilt. 'I do feel happy sometimes, but then I think of all the poor people in the world and I feel guilty. Also I find it difficult to enjoy being happy because I know it won't last. I would almost rather get on with the bad bit than have this constant sense that I shouldn't be feeling happy because I've missed something.' Children who grow up in homes where parents express feelings appropriately, whether positive or negative, where they acknowledge and support their children's feelings and where happiness is as accepted and welcome as any other feeling, will grow up to enjoy their happiness when it's there and to take care of themselves when it isn't. There are no set rules for what they can and can't feel. You may remember that in Bronnie Ware's book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, one of those top five regrets was 'I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings' and another was 'I wish I'd let myself to be happier'. Sometimes these things seem to be in conflict, but actually they're not, we need them both. So how could we get on more friendly terms with happiness? The Dalia Lama says 'I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.... the very motion of our life is towards happiness'. He believes that we can reach happiness by training our minds. Certainly we can't be happy either if our mind tells us we must be happy all the time, or if it tells us we're just not the happy sort. It's time we realised that neither of these beliefs are true. Try this: What did you learn about happiness in the family and community you grew up in? How has that affected your relationship to happiness now? What do you believe about happiness, and how it relates to you and your life? Should you be happy, or do you sometimes feel guilty when you're happy, or worry that it won't last? If you feel you should be happy, do you feel guilty or otherwise bad when you aren't? Is it your job in life to be happy, and to make other people happy, or is it more to concern yourself with people's unhappiness, including your own? If it's bad to be happy, why is that? Do other people have to be happy first? Do you think that you deserve happiness? Take a look at your beliefs - how are they serving you in your present life? How do they affect the way you live your life? Could they do with a spring clean and update? If you could choose how you relate to happiness, what would that relationship be like? Have a happy week, or if that isn't possible this week, take good care of yourself. love Anita

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